Like every other dog breed, the Norwegian Lundehund has a specific job they performed to help humans. However, unlike other breeds, the Lundehund no longer does his original job and is the most unique breed ever created. They have been described as unusual, unique, distinctive, and intriguing, but their history can also be told using the same adjectives. The rare Norwegian Lundehund is the world’s most unusual dog and was close to becoming extinct at different times throughout their history.
Lunde is a Norwegian word meaning puffin and hund means dog. The Lundehund is a small spitz type dog originating from the Lofoten Islands located off the northwest Norway coast. Considered to be the most ancient Nordic breed, they were first written about in 1591, but no one knows how old this breed actually is. However, scientists have enough evidence to believe the breed descended from the Ur-dogs that survived the third Ice Age and found a home on the ice-free Lofoten Islands. A 5,000 year old fossilized dog, Varanger dog, was unearthed in north Lapland, Russia and gives scientists another piece of the puzzle. The Varanger dog and the Norwegian Lundehund are missing a tooth on both sides of their jaws other breeds have.
Over time, the Lundehund most likely adapted naturally to their environment and has remained unchanged over the years. Farmers found this small agile dog useful for hunting Puffins, which are parrot-like diving birds that build their nests on the side of cliffs. With an economy based on exporting Puffin feathers (down) and using the bird as a food source, the people living on the islands were dependent on these penguin-like birds that used the cliffs for protection from predators, including humans. Puffins tuck their nests out of reach in crevasses along the steep cliffs of the coastline where a maze of narrow caves with twists and turns snake through the dangerous and rocky sea-cliffs. Because the birds were so hard to reach and Lundehunds made catching them easy, most households had anywhere from two to twelve dogs. Unfortunately, each dog was taxed and when catching Puffins with nets became an alternative way of hunting, the dogs were no longer needed and their population declined.
The Puffin dog is small, 12 – 15 inches tall, weighing 12 – 16 pounds, but his ability as a hunter should not be underestimated. He is adept at climbing through the narrowest of caves and along slippery coastal cliffs to find and catch his prey and return to his owner with it still alive. It’s the dog’s unique and unusual features that makes him an expert at cliff climbing and navigating through tight cave tunnels that would frustrate and stymie even a tenacious terrier.
For traction, the dog has polydactyl feet with six, and sometimes more, fully functioning, well muscled, toes on each foot that work like fingers. Five toes are triple-jointed and one toe has two joints, like our thumb. These extra toes not only helps him grip slippery rocks along the steep cliffs, they also made it possible for him to work his way through tight spots in the narrow tunnels. Eight over-sized foot pads on each front foot and seven on the back feet adds to their ability to find safe footing on wet, uneven, unstable ground and slippery rocks.
The Lundehund is blessed with a remarkable flexibility no other dog breed has. The spine is flexible which allows the dog to bend his neck backwards, touching his forehead on his back. The forelegs can be held out at a 90 degree horizontal angle to the body which allows the dog to lay flat on his stomach. This flexibility is what makes it possible for the dog to squirm through tight twisting tunnels. The only other mammal with an equally flexible neck is the reindeer.
Like all spitz type canines, Puffin dogs have upright ears, but the Lundehund ears are as unique and unusual as their feet and spine. When needed, the dog can close off his ears by folding them in half, turning them backwards, or upwards. This allows him to seal off his ears while maneuvering through close passageways and keep dirt, water, mud, and other debris out of his ear canal. While his ears are sealed off, his hearing isn’t affected because the outer part of the cartilage acts as a receiver that amplifies sound.
The Puffin bird is no longer hunted in Norway. In the 1800’s, the bird was declared an endangered species, where it remains today. The Norwegian Lundehund could also be described as endangered. Their numbers dropped dangerously low to a small population of dogs around the time of WW II because it was hard to find the distemper vaccine and when the disease broke out, the dogs were left unprotected from the virus. The breed was able to rebound until 1963 when the small population of dogs was hit with another round of distemper, decreasing their numbers once again. The breed has grown to about 2,000 since that time, with most of them still living in Norway.
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